If you’ve been an international student you will agree that finding the right accommodation is not an easy job. You may end up booking a property with very little information, risking your whole experience abroad. That’s why Uniplaces.com aims to organise the world of student accommodation, sorting out the current mess and fragmentation. They have built a secure, user-friendly and high quality environment for students and young professionals to safely book their accommodation online. With operations in Lisbon, Madrid and London (more than 6,000 rooms are listed in the latest) and plenty of adventures (Startup Weekend Lisbon back in 2011, Startup Chile, a couple of seed rounds, etc.), this company has the potential of dominating the housing market for students worldwide. We interviewed Miguel Santo Amaro (@miguelamaro), Uniplaces CEO and co-founder.
Question. Having a look on Uniplaces, all properties have very good photos and comprehensive information attached, how do you reach this high quality? Do you verify all properties?
Answer. We want to be as transparent as possible. We want our students to know everything there is to know about their next student home, and that information needs to be real and clear. Most of the properties on Uniplaces are verified by our team and we take our own professional photographs and write our own property descriptions. Our students need to know exactly what they are booking before arriving and that is very important to us.
Q. There are well established players in the accommodation market such us Spareroom.co.uk, Idealista.com or even Airbnb, are the accommodation needs of uni students so different from the general public that they require a dedicated platform?
A. Student accommodation is different from the general market because it is quite specific when it comes to demands. Nowadays you have millions of students who are moving abroad to study and the opportunity is clear. They are looking for student housing, with all the facilities they require such as wifi connection, all the bills included, furnished properties and ready to move in. Students need to book their accommodation fast and sorted it out as soon as possible but it’s also about the whole experience of living away from home. You want to book a room in a student residence for the atmosphere of the property itself and you want to do it safely. So in the end with Uniplaces you’re not just booking a room, you’re starting your life as a student. We remove the fear of studying abroad and help out in the crucial moment of finding accommodation like no other platform does.
Q. In 2012 Uniplaces was selected by Startup Chile. How was the experience in Chile? Is South America still in your roadmap?
A. It was a great experience and it was very helpful in order to set up the company and understand exactly what we wanted. However, when it comes to startups things change pretty fast and you need to adapt to what you think is best. In our case, we changed our business model and evolved the platform to a more helpful solution to both students and landlords. We clearly felt the need to focus in major European capitals before expanding to other continents like South America. We see Uniplaces as a global brand and company, therefore South America is on the roadmap, but it might not be in the next year or so.
Q. In November 2013 Uniplaces raised over £700,000 in seed funding round led by Octopus, alongside Alex Chesterman (Founder and CEO of Zoopla Property Group) and William Reeve (Chairman of Graze.com). How has this investment changed your company?
A. The last round of investment was a great opportunity for us and it helped us grow as a company. We were able to grow the team in both London and Lisbon and expand to a new city, Madrid. We are also currently developing our product to make sure our platform corresponds to our customers’ expectations and improving our marketing efforts. Of course the investment we got from Octopus, Alex and William was crucial to set up all these operations.
Q. Lisbon, London, Madrid… Why only this cities? What’s next?
A. We want to think one step at a time. We started in Lisbon because we saw an opportunity as the city itself has a growing student community. However, we felt the need to aim higher and London and Madrid were the perfect fit. We want to be present in all major European cities that have a significant student community so we have big plans for the future.
Q. Your management team has a strong international experience, is this your main strength?
A. It is one of the main strengths. We have a young international team who can essentially relate to our customers and that is key. We know what students go through when they study abroad and we’ve been through the same problems not so long ago. We want to help when they move in and make sure they have the best possible experience. Nonetheless, we believe our main strength is our own company culture. We have an amazingly talented team, from people who have worked on Google to others who have worked for the United Nations. We all share the passion and we’re all here to help build Uniplaces.
Q. What would be your piece of advice for other startup entrepreneurs?
A. Our advice is to always be in touch with your customers, you’re doing it for them and that is key to success. You have to listen to your audience before you take action. You can’t just develop new product features based on assumptions, you have to get all the possible feedback from your customers and come up with the product they want.